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Michael Reynolds died January 2014 in the palliative care unit of Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 62 years old. The last 10 years of his life, he filled his apartment with as many plants as a terrarium, and as many books as a small library. For the 15 years before that, he lived and slept on Commonwealth Avenue.
Usually, he slept on the grass, sometimes on the sidewalk in front of a nearby church. He accepted soup and sandwiches from a healthcare van, but sparingly, with no apparent need for conversation, sympathy, linens, towels, or mattress.
One bitterly cold Boston night, he confessed to the street team doctor that his feet were bothering him. The frostbite was so severe that one foot required amputation. In the long inpatient rehab that followed, while he practiced walking, Michael became more forthcoming, though in his precise and sparing way. He'd been an artist, with a degree from the Museum School — a painter and collagist. Alcohol was his affliction, but in rehab he gave it up for good. He played cribbage and expressed an interest in cooking.
There is an imaginative, yet sensible program in Boston called Housing First. In its first four years, using vouchers, it placed 400 chronically homeless people in permanent housing. Ninety percent of them are still there, and each placement has saved the state almost $10,000 a year in public-health costs.
In his Housing First apartment, Michael transformed into a host who remembered the names of his visiting nurses' babies, and offered salads made with herbs he'd grown. He found coffee table art books, kept tree frogs, and began to study economics. He never stopped smoking — two packs a day, more when he could afford it. He said it was like choosing to ride a motorcycle without a helmet: you knew could die from it at any moment, but your head’s in the wind.
He didn’t leave homelessness behind. He volunteered with Boston’s Health Care For The Homeless Program, and eventually was invited to join its board of directors, traveling in his understated way to national meetings across the country (always by train, because he didn’t like to fly). His non-reactive, unruffled temperament made an excellent impression in the windy stratosphere of upper bureaucracy.
The street team that had first encountered him continued to visit monthly, mostly for the joy of seeing him settled. He didn’t like fussy health care — flu shots, blood pressure checks, but not much else. No one noticed when he began losing weight, and, though he must have been in pain, he didn’t mention it. By the time he was admitted to the hospital, an abdominal mass had metastasized. His dearest friend watered the plants in his apartment, and he died within six weeks.
Michael left his terrarium to Boston Health Care For The Homeless, where it will become a garden in their atrium. His body remains in the morgue, waiting, ironically, in temporary housing for a permanent home.
Did you know Michael Reynolds? Share your memories in the comments section.
This segment aired on November 4, 2014.
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